Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc.

Decision Date05 August 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-3891,97-3891
Citation151 F.3d 813
Parties77 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1052, 73 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 45,478 Debra A. SMITH and Mark A. Thomas, Appellees, v. RICELAND FOODS, INC., Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Spencer Fox Robinson, Pine Bluff, AR, argued (David R. Bridgforth, on the brief), for appellant.

Mark T. Burnette, Little Rock, AR, argued, for appellees.

Before WOLLMAN and MURPHY, Circuit Judges, and KYLE, District Judge. 1

KYLE, District Judge.

Riceland Foods, Inc. ("Riceland") appeals following a jury verdict in favor of the Appellees, Debra Smith ("Smith") and Mark Thomas ("Thomas"), on their retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Riceland argues that the district court erred in denying its motions for judgment as a matter of law and that it was prejudiced by comments that the district court made to the jury after it returned an inconsistent verdict and before the judge directed them to continue deliberating. Riceland further appeals the district court's award of attorneys' fees to the Appellees. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

I. Background

Riceland is an Arkansas corporation that processes raw agricultural commodities, such as soybean, into finished products. It has a soybean processing division in Stuttgart, Arkansas. During the relevant time period, Leo Gingras ("Gingras") was the manager of this division.

In 1981, Thomas, an African American, began working for Riceland as a bin and leg fitter in the Stuttgart soybean processing division. At the time of his discharge in 1995, Thomas was employed as a meal loader. In 1994, Riceland hired Smith, an African American, as an assistant plant operator in the Stuttgart soybean processing division. Shortly after Smith began working for Riceland, she and Thomas became romantically involved, and the two lived together. Management personnel at Riceland were aware of this relationship and knew that Smith and Thomas were contemplating marriage.

A. The Plant Operator Position

In September 1995, Thomas applied for a plant operator position. Donnie McFerrin ("McFerrin"), who made the hiring decision, told Thomas that he could not select him for the position because company policy prohibited married people from working together, and Smith already worked in that department. McFerrin stated that Gingras had informed him of this policy when he spoke with Gingras about the open position. Smith also applied for the plant operator position. McFerrin selected John McNally ("McNally"), a white employee, for the plant operator position, even though he had three months less seniority than Smith.

Smith believed that McFerrin's decision to hire McNally was motivated by discrimination on the basis of both gender and race, and as a result, she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on October 12, 1995. Although Thomas did not file a charge of discrimination, he assisted Smith in filing her charge.

B. The Case Center

In December 1994, Riceland opened the Case Center, a computer learning center for its employees. Riceland required its employees to spend at least four hours per month working on educational computer programs in the Case Center, but it would pay employees up to twelve hours per month for such work. Myra McNeil ("McNeil") was in charge of administering the Case Center.

Riceland paid its employees for the number of hours that they spent in the Case Center (hereinafter "door time"), rather than for the amount of time they actually spent working on the computer programs (hereinafter "lesson time"). Riceland kept track of the amount of door time by having employees scan their employee badges when they entered the Case Center. Most employees had discrepancies between their door time and their lesson time because of the time it took them to log onto the computer and select a program. Lesson time also did not account for time an employee spent talking with McNeil or taking bathroom or smoking breaks.

C. Investigation of Case Center Abuse

In late November 1995, employees informed McNeil that employees were entering the Case Center but not utilizing the computer lessons while they were there. McNeil relayed this information to Gingras, who then directed her to conduct an investigation into the alleged abuse.

During the course of her investigation, McNeil compared the pay records and computer records of the employees who were using the Case Center. McNeil acknowledged that many employees had discrepancies between their door time and lesson time. If a discrepancy was large enough, McNeil would look at the employee's lesson time for the days the employee had been paid to see if she could verify whether the employee had spent any time on a computer lesson that day. If the employee's lesson time indicated that he or she had spent some time working on a lesson for the days in question, McNeil would not report this employee to Gingras. At least eight employees had time discrepancies larger than those of the Appellees, but they were not reported to Gingras.

On approximately December 7, 1995, McNeil reported to Gingras that Smith had been abusing the Case Center. McNeil told Gingras that a comparison of the door time and the lesson time showed that Smith had been paid for 16.5 hours in the Case Center, but that she had only spent 8.5 hours working on lessons. The records also showed that Smith had been paid for 4 hours of time spent in the Case Center on two days, but her lesson time revealed that Smith could have been working on lessons for only a few minutes on those days. McNeil also claimed that she had received verbal statements from three employees implicating Smith in Case Center abuse.

Based on McNeil's report, Gingras decided to fire Smith. Gingras testified that he decided to terminate her because Riceland had "multiple statements from employees" which indicated that Smith had abused the Case Center by clocking into the Case Center, logging onto the computers, and then leaving and coming back at a later time to log out. On December 8, 1995, Gingras met with Smith and told her that she was being fired for falsifying company records.

The evidence at trial, however, revealed that only one of the employees implicating Smith actually gave a statement to McNeil before Smith was fired. Garland Peterson ("Peterson") told McNeil that on November 28, 1995, Smith and Thomas were logged onto a computer when he arrived in the Case Center, and he was there for approximately 30 minutes before they returned to log out. 2 The time records from November 28, 1995, indicated that neither Smith nor Thomas had abused the Case Center on that day. Moreover, the records revealed that Peterson had been paid for over two hours of time spent in the Case Center on November 28, 1995, but he had no time registered on the computer for that day. McNeil did not investigate Peterson's discrepancy, and Peterson was not reported to Gingras. Finally, the testimony at trial established that another employee, Bobbie Fread ("Fread"), had been implicated in only one employee statement for being absent from the Case Center for approximately 20 minutes when she was logged onto a computer. Because the records could not verify the employee's statement, Fread was only given a warning.

Thomas did not have any discrepancies between his door time and his lesson time. Riceland had paid him for fewer hours than he had spent in the Case Center because he was still on the clock in the plant during some of this time. Riceland allowed employees, with their supervisor's permission, to go to the Case Center and work on computer lessons when plant activity was slow. On approximately December 18, 1995, McNeil reported Thomas to Gingras because he was allegedly implicated in the three statements that she had received regarding Smith. 3 Gingras met with Thomas on December 19, 1995, and advised him that other employees had given written statements that he was abusing the Case Center, and that Riceland had decided to terminate him for falsifying company records.

Riceland disciplined three other employees for abusing the Case Center. Gingras claimed that these employees were not fired because Riceland did not have employee statements implicating them in abusing the Case Center.

After their terminations, Smith and Thomas filed claims against Riceland. Smith alleged that Riceland had denied her a promotion and subsequently terminated her because of her race and gender, in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. She further alleged that Riceland discharged her in retaliation for filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, in violation of Title VII. Thomas alleged that Riceland had denied him a promotion and terminated him because of his race and that it also discharged him in retaliation for assisting Smith with the filing of her discrimination charge, in violation of Title VII.

The case proceeded to a trial by jury in June 1997. The district court denied motions for judgment as a matter of law. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Riceland on Appellees' failure to promote and discriminatory discharge claims. With respect to Appellees' retaliation claims, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Smith and Thomas, awarding Smith $20,750 in damages and Thomas $31,500 in damages.

II. Denial of Riceland's Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Riceland claims that the district court erred in denying its motions for judgment as a matter of law on the Appellees' retaliation claims. It contends that both Smith and Thomas failed to establish the third element of their prima facie cases of retaliation--a causal connection between their statutorily protected activity and their termination--and that both failed to produce evidence that Riceland's legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for their discharges were pretextual.

This Court reviews a district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a...

To continue reading

Request your trial
95 cases
  • Green v. The Servicemaster Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • July 21, 1999
    ...employment action against her; and (3) the adverse action was causally linked to her protected activity. Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813, at 817-18 (8th Cir.1998); Cross v. Cleaver, 142 F.3d 1059, 1071 (8th Cir.1998) ("The elements of a claim of retaliation in violation of Title......
  • Sacay v. Research Foundation of City Univer. of Ny, 97-CV-4002(NG).
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • March 27, 2002
    ...Gonzalez v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, 122 F.Supp.2d 335, 347 (N.D.N.Y.2000) (same) with Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813 (8th Cir.1998) (holding that allowing standing contradicts the plain statutory language and will rarely be necessary to protect relat......
  • Orluske v. Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • October 10, 2006
    ...she personally engaged in the protected conduct."' Clark v. Johanns, 460 F.3d 1064, 1067 (8th Cir.2006) (quoting Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813, 819 (8th Cir.1998) (emphasis added)). The plaintiff need only report the allegedly wrongful activity to engage in protected activity;......
  • Thompson v. North American Stainless, Lp
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • June 5, 2009
    ...he was not entitled to sue for retaliation under the ADEA. Id. The Eighth Circuit employed a similar rationale in Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813 (8th Cir.1998). The plaintiff in Smith alleged that he was discharged in retaliation for the filing of a discrimination charge by a f......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
6 books & journal articles
  • Closing the Floodgates: Defining a Class of Third-Party Plaintiffs for Title VII Retaliation Claims
    • United States
    • Louisiana Law Review No. 73-2, January 2013
    • January 1, 2013
    ...against a complaining employee’s relative or friend in retaliation for the complaining employee’s 83. Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813 (8th Cir. 1998); Fogleman v. Mercy Hosp., Inc., 283 F.3d 561, 569 (3d Cir. 2002); Holt v. JTM Indus., 89 F.3d 1224, 1227 (5th Cir. 1996) (address......
  • An Inevitable Progression in the Scope of Title VII's Anti-Retaliation Provision: Third-Party Retaliation Claims
    • United States
    • Capital University Law Review No. 38-3, May 2010
    • May 1, 2010
    ...assume that the best evidence of Congress’s intent is what it says in the texts of the statutes.”); Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813, 819 (8th Cir. 1998) (“[A] plaintiff bringing a retaliation claim under Title VII must establish that she personally engaged in the protected condu......
  • Deposing & examining lay witnesses
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Deposing & Examining Employment Witnesses
    • March 31, 2022
    ...such claims is an absurd outcome that contravenes the clearly expressed intent of the legislature”); Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813, 819 (8th Cir.1998) (holding that the “[proposed] rule—that a plaintiff bringing a retaliation claim need not have personally engaged in statutori......
  • Third-party Retaliation Problems
    • United States
    • Emory University School of Law Emory Law Journal No. 72-2, 2022
    • Invalid date
    ...561, 568 (3d Cir. 2002) (reaching this conclusion with respect to the ADA's anti-retaliation provision); Smith v. Riceland Foods, Inc., 151 F.3d 813, 819 (8th Cir. 1998) (stating that the contrary argument is not supported by the plain language of Title VII). 45. Thompson v. N. Am. Stainles......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT